After a month of high heat and humidity, we woke up yesterday in the North Country to cooler air. Fall is still a month away, but NFL training camps have begun and the Gopher players and their new coaches are preparing for the expanded Big 10 season. Yesterday we could turn off the AC, open windows, and go for long a walk. Yesterday we got a foretaste of the feast to come.
My mind is on Yeats as it is so often during times of seasonal and life transitions. More than any other poet – for there is no poet I have read more or closer – Yeats’ words regularly come to me unbidden. I find myself walking down a quiet hallway and suddenly his words are there keeping cadence with my echoing steps… my breath and heartbeat singing his words.
As I have said on this blog on other occasions, Yeats – more than any other poet – grew greater over time. Most of his best work was done in his fifties, sixties, and seventies. His poetic ear and intellect sharpening, not dulling, with time and experience
“Among School Children” is a poem from later in life and has long been one of my favorites. It’s famous last stanza is familiar to any English major. Occasioned by a visit the famous Irish poet/statesman made to a classroom of children, this is a poem about fame, and aging, and youth, and remembering…. But most of all it is a poem about the true power of art.
Yesterday I stood in my backyard and read this poem out-loud to the day, my breath making sounds Yeats once made, my heart beating in time with his, my bones and soul filled with the same emotion. That is the power of art… of poetry… of Yeats.
Among School Children
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way – the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire. a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy -
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age -
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage -
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind -
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once – enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But thos the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts – O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise -
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?